Armageddon Review

There are innumerable reasons to hate Michael Bay, and probably even more internet reviews devoted to enumerating all of them, but sometimes I think that hate is simply too primitive a reaction to what he does. Sure, his politics are retrograde, his sense of character is nil, and his visual style is nothing if not abrasive; but is there any other director in Hollywood so reviled whose work could be recognized at a single glance? Sure, Brett Ratner and Roland Emmerich are probably just as hated, but could you honestly tell their films apart? Not so with Michael Bay, who manages to infuse even basic scenes (such as informing the President that something terrible is going to happen) with a sense of the grudgingly familiar but also a distinctive mise-en-scene (snobby film term, sorry) that seems to demand to be noticed with a noise and insistence that perhaps no other filmmaker can match. I’m not about to argue that any of his films, especially Armageddon is any good, but it’s time to put up or shut up; I couldn’t do what he does.

After discovering an asteroid the ‘size of Texas’ (a phrase repeated ad nauseum in the film’s advertising) hurtling towards the Earth, NASA turns to the only people qualified to defuse such a complicated, catastrophic situation: oil drillers, led by roughneck Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis), and assisted by hothead young ‘un A.J. Frost (Ben Affleck), who’s constantly making trouble with Stamper’s daughter, Grace (Liv Tyler). As the deadline approaches, the eggheads at NASA (led by Billy Bob Thornton) and the blue-collar working class types struggle to work together to bring their mission into space, and Stamper has difficulty accepting Frost as an equal, despite his years of hard work for him. But following hot on the heels of Independence Day, the threat of imminent destruction of every species on the planet (portrayed here as less significant a problem than Stamper’s ability to deal with his daughter screwing Frost) is enough to make everyone forget their vast differences in education and training and come together as equals to create a gigantic explosion in space.

In the decade or so since its release, the scientific and logical inconsistencies of this film have been discussed at length, to the point that Bay himself has admitted them himself, apparently even during the time of production. But unlike other completely illogical blockbusters of the era (except perhaps The Lost World, with which this would make either an excellent or soul-crushing double feature), Armageddon seems in no way embarrassed about its flagrant leaps of logic, even going so far as to chalk them up to its blue collar charm (the film’s attempts to identify itself with working class men is positively ruthless, to the point where experience working with aeronautics equipment appears to be a hindrance when going into space). Consider the things this film managed to incorporate, despite their having little to nothing to do with the plot: massive guns in space (always helpful when performing really sensitive, expensive operations), strippers, guns on land, hitting golf balls at Green Peace, and so on and so forth. If you want a movie that makes up phrases or inserts any long, boring monologues about scientific concepts to try to make itself appear more intelligent than it is, look elsewhere, because Armageddon chucks anything resembling guilt out the window and doesn’t look back (an interesting counterpoint to the same summer's Deep Impact, which seemed to want to be taken seriously as much as this didn't).

And that is only one reason that the film can be so difficult to sit through; the primary one lies in the visual sensibilities of Bay himself. Unlike so many directors of his generation, Bay is clearly not a ‘television director’; he doesn’t put the camera in the usual three places and let the actors do his job. He puts cameras absolutely everywhere, tilts them, zooms them, pans them, dollies them, and makes every single detail of any given scene just scream (in addition to the already overwhelming pulse of the soundtrack). It may be headache-inducing, but it’s also incredibly precise, and done with a command of audiovisual presentation that most big name directors could only dream of. So even if this film is repugnantly idiotic, it’s repugnantly idiotic in a way that is active rather than passive; even if you hate it, it’s not as if you’re seeing anything other than exactly what Michael Bay wants you to see.

Then again, maybe you don’t hate it. I know plenty of intelligent people who have a soft spot for this, and I guess I can understand that (I’ve always been partial to The Rock). For me, the problem has always been that the film is too character-based, if you can believe it. If you take a look at this cast out of context (Peter Stormare, Steve Buscemi, Will Patton, Owen Wilson, William Fichtner), you might think you were watching an especially well-funded independent film, and it shows. Characters talk and talk (this move is, after all, two and a half hours long), frequently beside large exploding things, but talking nonetheless. Looking back, this doesn’t feel like an action movie so much as an explosion movie, where people stand around waiting for things to combust.  It may be shot with all of the detail that you would expect from a Coen brothers film, but Armageddon is still a half-baked work, and not particularly reflective of Bay’s talents, which generally are on better display when people are fighting something a little more animated than a big rock in space.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

This set will be familiar to just about anyone from the latter half of the VHS generation, as the graphics on the box are virtually the same as when the film first came to home video in 1998. The special features should be pretty familiar too: the original theatrical trailer and the music video to Aerosmith’s “Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” are included here.

"Armageddon" is on sale April 27, 2010 and is rated PG13. Action. Directed by Michael Bay. Written by Jonathan Hensleigh, J.J. Abrams, Tony Gilroy, Shane Salerno, Robert Roy Pool. Starring Ben Affleck, Billy Bob Thornton, Bruce Willis, Keith David, Liv Tyler, Michael Clarke Duncan, Steve Buscemi, Will Patton.

Apr
21
2010
Anders Nelson • Associate Editor

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